Scientist, artist and chocolatier, Phil Simonson can read lips. So when menu looki-loos peruse the menu at Chocolate Lab and whisper to each other that mixing chocolate with savory couldn’t possibly work, he “sees” it. Those times make for excellent teachable moments for the former teacher to explain that chocolate does magical things in the world of savory cooking, enhancing flavor, making a dish or a cocktail better than you ever thought possible. Ah, chocolate to the rescue again!
Take for instance, the treatment pork gets – 18 hours of slow roasting and a bourbon-chocolate barbeque sauce that provides a richness and depth that isn’t cloying (like many barbeque sauces are). Said pork is shredded and served with pickled onions and broccoli slaw for the Pulled Pork Sandwich ($10). Not for one moment will you eat that sandwich and think, “dang, there’s chocolate in here!” You’ll just say “mmmmmm.”
Medjool Dates ($9), on the Small Plates menu, could serve as appetizer/meal/dessert to me, so perfectly balancing sweet and savory. Dates with Grand Cru gruyere, milk chocolate, wrapped in bacon with a chocolate balsamic drizzle were perfection. I may have blushed a little upon eating them.
A beautiful Flatbread ($8) with pear, Gorgonzola and chocolate-balsamic is served with a fluff of arugula and shavings of semisweet (61%) chocolate. Again, no direct chocolate flavor – just delicious flavor.
The soups of the day, when I visited were the French Onion Soup (with five different varieties of onion, brandy, wine, vegetable and beef broth and dark chocolate) and a Chilled Watermelon Soup. This was rosy brilliance in a bowl with water, white wine and champagne, white and dark chocolate, feta, ginger, red chili and dried mint. The flavor was sunny, fresh and just complex enough to make me want to close my eyes and savor.
Under the Entree section of the menu, Shrimp and Risotto and Butternut Squash Ravioli were listed along with Tenderloin which will be removed and will re-appear for fall. Although we can totally imagine it, the espresso and cocoa dry rub felt a little too foreign for diners and wasn’t a popular item. It is being substituted by Lemon Chicken dish with a vodka cream sauce, capers and fresh peas over chocolate pasta that started out as a weekend special that sold out. An espresso- cocoa rub didn’t fly but chocolate linguine did? Go figure! Both sound delicious to me and equally adventurous. I’ll return for the chicken dish and will eagerly welcome a chill in the air to try that tenderloin. You may wonder, as I did, if there’s a mole sauce on the menu. No! Why? Because Simonson says that would be “expected” and he doesn’t want to do anything that’s expected – except provide delicious meals, of course.
Chocolate Lab has an extensive wine, beer and cordials menu with a succinct cocktail menu featuring a few 1920’s-era drinks. I chose the Aviation with gin, creme de violette and black cherry. It’s an example of a beverage that isn’t made with chocolate (some are) but that was selected for how well it went with chocolate!
Of course, you can’t have a restaurant devoted to chocolate without a killer dessert menu which includes Triple Chocolate Brownie a la mode, Shortcake, Creme Brulee and Krumkake, a delicate, pizelle-like rolled cookie filled with cream. Simonson uses his grandmother’s recipe (family recipes are always a selling point). He recalls that she made them for special occasions, unfilled, and that the kids in the family would walk around with cookies slipped onto every finger! A delightful story makes any meal better, don’t you think?
Be sure to buy some truffles from the front case to take home. They’ll be packaged in precious little brown boxes, a lovely present to open yourself, or to give someone else. Or to give yourself, like I said. And like I did.
We hear Chocolate Lab also has picnic platters you can order and pick up to take right down the Esplanade to City Park Jazz, which runs every Sunday evening. Call to order: 720.536.5037.
Chocolate Lab is located at 2504 E. Colfax Avenue, in Denver. www.chocolatelabdenver.com There’s a parking garage in back, plus there are bike racks out front and the restaurant is right on bus route. You could also, of course, take advantage of In Good Taste Denver’s exclusive discount code with Lyft. Use IGTD17 when ordering your ride.